Government & Politics

Kansas City transit agency lowers fares and considers as-needed ‘microtransit’ routes

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority has approved three initiatives that will make transit cheaper and more flexible for some riders.
The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority has approved three initiatives that will make transit cheaper and more flexible for some riders.

Lower bus fares for Johnson County riders. Free transit for disabled people riding on fixed routes. And a pilot project for an Uber-style, pop-up bus route system to fill in transit gaps.

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority board moved ahead with all three initiatives Wednesday to further the ATA’s goal of improving the local mass transit system.

“At the end of the day,” board chairman Robbie Makinen said, “it’s about options for people who want to get somewhere.”

The transit agency has a longstanding goal of making it easier and more affordable for people to ride the bus from one jurisdiction to another in a bistate region with four separate bus systems and dozens of municipalities.

In the last year, the ATA achieved a milestone by bringing all four systems under its management. Previously, the Jo in Johnson County, IndeBus in Independence and Unified Government Transit in Wyandotte County operated separately, or at arm’s length from the ATA and its Metro and Max bus system.

The four are now being rebranded under a common name, RideKC.

But the Jo had maintained its separate fare system, charging $2.25 for one-way trips versus the $1.50 the others charge. That’s likely to change come January, when 10 of the 15 Johnson County routes will see fares reduced to $1.50, subject to final approval.

Chief planning officer Chuck Ferguson estimates that any loss in fare income will be made up with increased ridership.

The ATA also hopes to save money on its point-to-point paratransit operations by allowing disabled people to ride regular buses free. That is supposed to begin in the second quarter of 2016.

Somewhat more tentative is the ATA’s move toward introducing a new kind of bus system in the region. The authority is negotiating with a Boston-based company called Bridj that arranges bus service on an as-needed basis in its hometown and now in Washington, D.C.

Microtransit is the buzzword for it. Routes are developed through an algorithm that churns transit data, social media activity and requests for service through a phone app. Riders in a specified service area are guaranteed a direct ride, with only one or two stops, from a bus stop that is within a five-minute walk of where they live or work to somewhere within a five-minute walk of their destination.

Unlike new-age taxi services like Uber and Lyft, which also use apps to arrange rides, Bridj contracts with established transit services to provide drivers and vehicles that hold 14 people on average, Matt George, the company’s chief executive officer, told the board.

The idea is to fill gaps where normal bus service is nonexistent or irregular. Rides in Boston and Washington cost more than regular bus fare on average. But not much more, George said — about $3.50 on average compared to an average fare of $2.50 for public transit (trains and buses) in those cities.

If the ATA eventually makes a deal with Bridj, it will be the first public-private partnership of its kind, Makinen said, and a model to other cities.

“If it works in Kansas City, it works anywhere,” George said.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks